Israel is currently embroiled in a particularly uncultured debate over the limits of its cultural freedom. The progressively ugly mud-slinging between the newly appointed Minister of Culture, Miri Regev, and the proponents of artistic liberty continues to provide questionable entertainment which has nothing in common with any conventional definition of culture and may, at root, have nothing to do with culture at all. More than anything else, this seemingly unending imbroglio is symptomatic of deep divides — political, religious, national, economic, and social — which reflect a gradual unraveling of the normative adhesive of Israeli society and lead to an increasingly prevalent absence of civility that is fast tearing the country asunder.
This splintered reflection of Israel cries out for much more than a simple reaffirmation of the freedom of cultural creativity or the reframing of funding guidelines for writers, filmmakers and performers. It calls for the formulation of a multi-cultural ethic that mirrors the essential diversity of Israeli society.
The latest iteration of Israel’s ongoing culture war commenced with official efforts to ban the El-Midan theater’s production of “Parallel Time,” a play inspired by the jail experiences of Walid Daka, incarcerated for his involvement in the kidnapping and subsequent murder of Moshe Tamam in 1984 (Haifa municipality funding for the theater has been suspended for over a month; the Ministry of Culture has frozen its subvention pending an investigation into the theater’s sources of support).
It was further fueled by an attempt to de-fund the Jaffa-based Elmina children’s theater founded by Gideona Raz and her husband, Norman Issa, because of the latter’s refusal to perform across the Green Line. This move was followed by the (successful) call to withdraw a documentary film on the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin, Yigal Amir, from the forthcoming Israel film festival. And, throughout, protests against freedom of expression have been accompanied by threats to remove government funding from controversial productions, with all involved engaging in bitter diatribes that only debase the cultural discourse they purportedly seek to sustain.
Just a few printable examples will suffice. Culture Minister Regev has made it clear that political considerations will be paramount in funding allocations (“we received 30 mandates and your only got 20 [sic]”) and that she does not respect Israel’s performers as a collectivity (whom she dubbed everything from “ungrateful” to “tight-assed” in a revealing interview in the women’s magazine At). Playwright and actor Oded Kottler intimated that behind the Likud’s 30 seats in the latest elections stand “a herd of cows” who consume bitter cultural oats — thus casting aspersions on all supporters of the present government. Some other artists took pains to graphically portray the utter boorishness of the Minister and her followers. This unsavory sampling — a fleeting search yields unrepeatable language bandied about in roughly equal amounts by proponents and opponents of freedom of expression alike — buries what is a vital substantive debate beneath a heap of offensive verbiage that leaves nobody unscathed.
A closer look at the characteristics of the prevalent cultural discourse is instructive of debates on other matters as well. First, the public discourse is marked by its sharply binary structure. On every single issue the sides are divided between “us” and “them.” Miri Regev speaks on behalf of an elusive and long-repressed segment of the population (mostly Mizrahi, nationalist and religiously traditional Jews residing in the periphery) against an equally ambiguous cultural left-leaning elite supposedly centered in secular, liberal, iconoclastic Tel Aviv. This stark overlapping of divisions echoes patterns that came to the fore during the recent elections (see the Likud slogan: “It is either us or them” or the Zionist Camp’s motto: “It is either us or him”), and highlighted by purposefully exclusionary statements such as Binyamin Netanyahu’s now infamous appeal to his voters to go to the polls since “the Arabs are rushing in droves to the ballot box on buses funded by left-wing organizations”.
Second, therefore, it is less important what is said than who is saying it. An actor demanding creative license is almost by definition a potentially treacherous self-hating Jew; a religious community requesting modesty on stage is hastily branded hyper-nationalistic and ignorant. The all-too-quick association between ideological position and sociological affiliation, by inserting large doses of bigotry into the conversation, has made serious discussion virtually impossible.
Third, it is hardly surprising then that these dichotomous features have promoted highly personalized debates of a vituperative sort. Disagreements over positions have inevitably devolved into attacks on the persons who have brought them to the fore.
This personalization has been accompanied by an incredible absence of verbal restraint leading, fourth, to an openly confrontational climate in the public sphere. The adversarial nature of contemporary life in Israel is everywhere apparent. In economics as in culture, in politics as in religion, in ethnic relations and national interactions, deeply divided Israel — very much uncomfortable with what it has become and uncertain about what it stands for — is on a collision course with itself.
What is sorely lacking is a sense of common ground — as democracy with its insistence on adherence to agreed-upon rules for regulating disagreements over key issues has been reduced to yet another partisan commodity in the battle over Israel’s identity. Thus, the current debasement of cultural discourse merely supplies an accentuated replica of that absence of civility which is permeating every corner of Israel’s existence and which can only be rectified by a serious, conscious and all-embracing effort to reformulate the essence of citizenship in Israel in line with 21st century realities.
The starting point for such an undertaking lies in the recognition of the truism that Israel’s strength lies in its diversity. For far too long, political polarization buttressed by social differences has built up separation walls which, of late, have been most vividly and aggressively expressed in the cultural sphere. The discourse surrounding these discussions, through its very incivility, continues to expand gaps which only exacerbate these tensions. Today, as in the past, efforts to impose uniformity in this highly heterogeneous context are doomed to failure. Unity in this context rests, more than ever before, on the construction of principles for a shared society which take into account its many varied social, economic, religious and political components and promote their precepts in thought and action.
The divisive discourse that mirrors contemporary Israel is not built to accommodate such an urgent exercise, which requires above all else a reaffirmation of the value of tolerance without which Israel’s fundamental pluralism can so easily devolve into a pitched battle between alternative worldviews. This necessitates respect for the other but hardly submissive self-effacement: Ashkenazim cannot become Mizrahim, Arabs should not be expected to adopt a Jewish identity, secular Israelis can remain Jews without becoming religious and the Orthodox may advocate family values without turning into homophobes. In the same vein, proponents of cultural freedom don’t have to insist that everyone accept their works, nor can settlers force opponents of the occupation to purchase their products.
On this foundation of tolerant pluralism it may be possible to reassert the values of personal and collective freedom, equality and justice that are so deeply embedded in Israel’s universal and Jewish legacies and begin the process of refurbishing the country’s common civil spaces. The discourse for such an enterprise is readily available; what is needed is the leadership to initiate and safeguard it, as well as a broad-based, cross-cutting commitment to make it work.